The NFL and Bullying: How to Change the Culture
This is my third “NFL Bullying” post since the topic splashed all over the national media this past Monday. The first (“The N.F.L. Culture and Bullying“) presents the theory that one reason why bullying is sometimes viewed as acceptable is the belief that it can increase motivation to reach a level of excellence not achievable without bullying.
Whereas there may indeed be legitimate examples of some people achieving more in some valued area than they would have because of some insult, there are many arguments that insults are far more likely to be harmful rather than helpful. From my own observations, insults most often just lead to a nasty exchange and wasted energy. Moreover, some talented people who might have made an excellent contribution to a team may end up quitting altogether rather than putting up with what they feel is abuse.
Off the football field, recent research has found that harsh verbal discipline by parents led to increases in teenage depression and more behavior problems, including fighting with peers, trouble in school and lying to parents (see Longitudinal Links Between Fathers’ and Mothers’ Harsh Verbal Discipline and Adolescents’ Conduct Problems and Depressive Symptoms).
I am therefore not convinced that people, to be fully motivated, need to be insulted. In the NFL, players know that if they do well their records will show this. Millions of dollars help to motivate. Lack of effort will lead to being cut from the team. When players do well they are cheered by millions and receive more financially rewarding sponsor deals. The players want to do well not only for themselves but for their teammates and to be respected as a skillful player by their fellow professional football players. The coaching team is hired to demonstrate passion for excellence, and they convey this attitude through modeling. With these types of motivators, hazing, with its likelihood of causing more harm then good, makes little sense.
My second post on this topic (N.F.L. Bullying: The Real Reason for it) argued that whereas part of the reason for the hazing of rookies in the NFL is the belief that it can challenge players to perform better, the larger reason has to do, in my opinion, with a completely different dynamic. I expressed this dynamic as follows:
“Veterans recognize that the rookies are after their jobs. When Joe Quarterback sees a fresh new quarterback on the team, he says to himself, After all my hard work and effort and all of the damaging blows that I’ve taken for the team, now this young son-of-a bitch wants to take my job.”
Now I do want to make it clear that I certainly don’t have enough information to say if any specific person involved in the Incognito-Martin incident is guilty of doing anything wrong. But I personally think there is ample evidence that there is currently too much bullying going on in the NFL, and we should go ahead and start discussing ways to change the culture. Why do I believe this?
One reason is the words used by Ryan Tannehill, QB for the Miami Dolphins, while defending his teammate, Richie Incognito, who is being accused of bullying. “Does he [Incognito] like to give guys a hard time?” said Tannehill. “Yes. Does he like to pester guys and have fun? Yes. But he brought a lot of laughter and a lot of cohesiveness.” (Quoted in Bloomberg Press in article titled, “NFL Bullying Accusation Forces Teams to Look at Own Locker Rooms“).
These kinds of statements even from someone trying to defend Incognito supports my contention that it is time to start thinking about changing the NFL culture. A much better culture would impart to the players a clear understanding that there are far better ways to bring cohesiveness to a team than giving teammates a hard time and pestering them and that laughing about such behavior doesn’t make it excusable. I’m not alone.
Jason Reid, a writer for the Washington Post wrote a column on this topic titled, “Miami Dolphins Blacks’ Support for Richie Incognito in NFL Bullying Affair is Troubling.”
Here’s what Reid had to say:
“Miami Dolphins players don’t get it. Their support of suspended guard Richie Incognito – even after they learned he used a racial slur in a threatening voice mail left for biracial linemate Jonathan Martin – is among many troubling aspects of the bullying controversy that has engulfed the NFL franchise.
But for me, what’s most disturbing is that several misguided African- American Dolphins players – Mike Wallace, Mike Pouncey, Brent Grimes and Michael Egnew have been among Incognito’s most vocal defenders – identify more closely with Martin’s alleged tormentor than they do with Martin. Their support for Incognito shows the wrongheaded thinking that can arise from the locker-room culture and long-standing beliefs in the African American community about what behavior is socially acceptable for blacks.”
IF indeed there is too much bullying going on in the NFL, such verbal statements can be one way to change its culture.
There is some hope that the culture can indeed be changed. According to a recent USA Today report, at least one NFL team has already managed to do this at least for one team–the Pittsburgh Steelers. There we learn that:
The attention hazing and bullying have received this week surprises Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. Having only played for one organization his entire 11-year career, Polamalu says he’s never seen any young players deal with anything even resembling hazing.
“Coach Tomlin has always said that if you are willing to help us win than you’re part of our family,” Polamalu said. “Whenever anybody young or new comes into here, we always have open arms and are willing to help them get used to their professional lives, whether it’s getting a car or giving them some change before they start getting paid.”
In another report, this one from ESPN, Polamalu said that the Steelers’ ethos starts at the top with chairman emeritus Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II.
“They’ve really instilled a family environment that’s permeated our locker room so whenever a rookie comes in we accept them with open arms. We teach them the best way we know on how to be professional, how to take care of your body, how to train, how to learn the defense, the offense, whatever it may be.”
“We take a simple approach in that young players can be quality reasons why we’re successful so if they’re capable and willing to help us in terms of what we desire to get done as a football team then we’re all committed to helping them help us,” the seventh-year coach said. “I think our veteran players embrace that and have mentor-like relationships with our young guys…”
These statements suggest that it is possible to create a culture in the NFL without the hazing of the younger players that appears to go on elsewhere.
In my view, the culture should start at the point just before a player’s contract is signed. The coach should look the player in the eye and say emphatically, “I don’t know what you’ve been taught while playing football before, but if you sign with us, you must agree that you will not participate in any hazing or putting down of players, young or old. Is that absolutely clear?!”
Moreover the contract should clearly have wording indicating the consequences of breaking this rule that includes suspensions and monetary penalties. The coach should underline where in the contract these provisions are, and they should be fully discussed. If the player doesn’t want to agree to these terms, he should be told that he’ll have to find work elsewhere.
Now, I understand that one of the strategies of football teams is to insult players on the other team. This is done in the hopes of getting the insulted player so angry that he will start a fight and end up either getting thrown out of the game or costing his team some other penalty. And so, teams do have to train their players to handle these types of insults. This can be done very effectively without hazing in the following way.
Coaches can have the players practice responding to insults by saying, “Nice try.” The players are told that when they say these words, it actually means, “I am not stupid enough to fall for that trick.”
The players should undergo repeated training on this. The training periods should begin with the coach standing in front of all of the players. He then states, “We are all going to now practice handling insults. This practice session will be done like this. I’ll shout an insult and all of you are to call out, ‘Nice try.’ After your reply, I’ll then shout, ‘What do we mean when we say, Nice try?’ Then in unison, all of you will call out, ‘I am not stupid enough to fall for that trick.'”
This drill should be done with twenty repetitions and then repeated on several different occasions. Then the players are told by the coach that during intra-squad scrimmages, to practice using the “Nice try” technique, from time to time he will have one squad start to insult the other squad players during the practice game. At such times, the individuals being insulted are to practice responding to the insults by saying with a smile, “Nice try.” The coach should mention that it is only during these types of practices that players insulting players will be tolerated.
With this type of practice, players can become competent in handling insults during real games that is consistent with a respectful culture among fellow team members.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.